You may want to whisper it but these are exciting times in Indian football. The Indian Super League (ISL) is at its highest level in years — the league’s best teams are legitimately expected to make a mark in Asia sooner rather than later, there is a defined youth movement that has only highlighted the league’s status.
And now, it’s paving a new way for Indian footballers. Experts, pundits, former footballers, everyone believes that the current young batch are quite capable of representing the country in foreign shores.
One such youngster who definitely has the talent, as was quite evident during the last season of the ISL, is ATK Mohun Bagan FC’s Sumit Rathi. The 19-year-old Muzaffarnagar-born defender was brought into the team as a cover for the centre back position.
He got an opportunity when senior pro Anas Edathodika got injured, and the rest, as they say, is history. Rathi went on to win the league’s emerging player of the year as he helped ATK claim their third ISL title.
“Last season is in the past. Now I don’t want to think much about it,” Rathi tells The Bridge with a certain nonchalance that can only be expected from someone who is as grounded as him.
The thing is, Rathi knows that next season might not be the same as the previous one. With the club bringing in fresh reinforcements, opportunities might be limited. Although Antonio Lopes Habas evidently trusts him, ATK Mohun Bagan might not play a three-man back line in 2020-21 and that means fewer chances for Sumit. But he isn’t too worried about it.
“The truth of life is that you have to move forward with the good moments of your life. The life of a sportsman is never easy, there are obstacles that come your way and you have to understand how to handle it and how to deal with it. At the end of the day, I don’t think we will face a lot of problems if we just set our goals and keep working hard towards them and believe in ourselves,” he says.
Perhaps, a big positive for him is the AFC Cup, the prestigious continental tournament which mandates a 3+1 foreign policy. Consequently, domestic players can get more chances there than in the ISL. Moreover, as a platform, the AFC Cup is much bigger, one where you could showcase your skills to the entire continent.
“The AFC Cup and AFC Champions League are two of the biggest events and obviously, they are extremely competitive. There will be experienced sides who play high quality football. I think this is very big opportunity for any club who ever participate in this leagues. As a team, we want to win the cup. It will be a huge thing for the club and for the country,” Sumit says.
“Moreover, in these tournaments, you get a chance to show your talent in front of the best Asian clubs. Overall, this is a very big event where you can take your club and your country forward,” he adds.
Asked if he has any aspirations of playing outside India, Sumit replies, “I think playing in ISL is a great thing for every young player, your confidence level goes up, your technical level goes up… you always feel proud to play whenever you are on the pitch. It is a great launchpad for young players like me who dream to someday play abroad.
“Of course, for any Indian player, playing in Europe or any of Asia’s top leagues is an incredible opportunity. But I think that decision has to be very important… when, where and which league you should play in, you have to take the right decision as a player. I have not thought about it yet, I have just started but certainly, if I get a chance to play in Europe or a top Asian league, it will be a big thing for me.”
“What is more important for me right now is that I need to improve my performance level day by day. I want to try to give my best effort always, for my club and country,” he signs off.